Murder Mysteries by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by P. Craig Russell is a graphic novel adapted from Gaiman's short story by the same name about the very first murder ever.
Can I tell you a secret? A guilty secret, if you will, given the kinds of books I like to read, foremost among them being murder mysteries and fantasy novels (and, of course, graphic novels of any stripe.)
I don’t particularly care for Neil Gaiman.
I have to qualify that, though, with the fact that I don’t particularly like his fantasy work. Admittedly, that’s the work for which he’s most renowned, and for which he’s earned numerous Hugos, a Newbery and a Carnegie, as well as the slavish devotion of legions of fans. Alas, most of his stuff with The Endless and his prose novels have all elicited a very firm “meh” from me. But when he ventures into crime territory (as with the awesome concept of the Serial Convention, as well as his graphic novel, Violent Cases, and his brilliant Sherlock Holmes pastiche, A Study In Emerald,) he holds my interest much better than he does with the books and ideas for which he’s more lauded.
When the graphic novel adaptation of his story, Murder Mysteries, first came out in 2002, I read through it quickly, judged it adequate, and moved on. But with the upcoming reissue, I thought I’d give it another whirl and see whether my opinion of it has changed any. Time and distance, I have found, can often drastically change what I previously thought and felt.
One of the first things I noticed this time around was that my appreciation for the artwork has definitely grown. This I could put down to being much more callow about such things in my youth, preferring the eye-popping, action-packed style of artists like Jim Lee and Mike Deodato Jr., or even the quirkiness of Mike Allred, to P. Craig Russell’s more sombre, detailed style. Which isn’t to say I didn’t like it—I thought it just as beautiful then as I do now—but I didn’t appreciate how ornate it was till I viewed it here again. P. Craig Russell also provides most of the extra material included in this reissue, giving the reader a fascinating insight into how the graphic novel was originally conceived and executed. I’d consider this edition well worth the purchase price for the 30-odd pages of extra material alone, especially if you’re a fan of either creator.
“But, Doreen,” I hear you asking, as any mystery fan might. “What about the story? How does it hold up?”
To recap for those unfamiliar with Murder Mysteries, it’s a tale within a tale, of a young man with a strange case of amnesia who is told a story by a vagrant, a story of the very first murder. At the beginning of Creation, an angel was killed in Heaven, and the Vengeance of the Lord, the archangel Raguel, awoke from his slumber to investigate. As Raguel delved deeper into why the angel Carasel had died, he uncovered questions of destiny, design and fate—the same kind of questions that philosophers and theologians have been struggling over for centuries.
On this re-read, I appreciated even more the nested structure of the story and, to hearken back to the art, the way P. Craig Russell paced the action. As to the plot itself, I found that the story of the first heavenly murder held up well, embracing as it does several fairly timeless questions in the Judeo-Christian tradition and providing an interesting, if unconventional, solution to these. I also really liked the premise of the framing story, even if I have no idea still of why the young man was given the gift he received. I thought that P. Craig Russell wasn’t quite as successful with conveying the young man’s fate in the story as he explained it in the extra material, though I certainly appreciated the detailed artwork otherwise. To be honest, I felt that I preferred the ambiguity of not knowing exactly what had happened to our nameless young man, as it made his amnesia feel all the more resonant. I certainly appreciated finding out what had been in the artist’s mind when he’d drawn it, though.
But I think what I liked best about Murder Mysteries this time around was the way it successfully melded fantasy with theology and noir. In this telling, Raguel is the first noir detective in Creation, and the conceit is just as fresh as it was when he debuted at the turn of the 21st century. The great thing about graphic novels is how perfect they are for and unapologetic about mixing genres, often elevating the result above narrow definitions of categorization. When I was younger, I always felt uneasy at my acceptance of books that blithely ignored genre boundaries, but I’m glad I persisted, and I know in hindsight that it’s due to books like Murder Mysteries—and to the authors like Neil Gaiman who write these books—that encouraged me to continue. So while I’m still lukewarm about Neil Gaiman’s fantasy writing, I’m pleased to have had the chance to reevaluate Murder Mysteries, and to add it to his list of exceedingly solid crime fiction, fantastic or otherwise.
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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She microblogs on Twitter @dvaleris.
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